Friday, September 30, 2016

The Busiest Undertaker Ever: Victor Ponet

The Morrison Hotel, located in Ponet Square, immortalized in album cover art. 
(Bet you didn't see THAT coming!)

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Belgium, a boy named Victor Ponet was born to French-speaking parents.*

Victor trained as a cabinetmaker, spent several years making cabinets in Paris, and emigrated to the United States in 1864 at the age of 28. After living in New York and San Francisco, he landed in Los Angeles in 1869, home to a sizable French-speaking community and plenty of opportunities for a self-starter.

And Victor was indeed a self-starter.

In the 1860s, Los Angeles was the most dangerous city in the United States. At one point, its murder rate was twenty times that of New York City. Throw in accidents, illness, and unreliable sources of (questionably safe) water, and, unfortunately, people died.

Victor set up shop at 66 Main Street (southeast corner of Main and 1st), and soon began making coffins in addition to cabinets (someone had to do it). Within a few years, he was also the city undertaker.

And he kept adding new revenue streams.

Victor branched out into picture framing (he also sold pictures and mirrors to fill those frames - smart guy). Before long, he was also selling Florence sewing machines. Victor employed a young new arrival named Jean Jaussaud, whom we'll meet again later.

Incredibly, surviving advertisements imply that he did everything from 66 Main Street...which doubled as LA's first funeral parlor. (The site is now smack in the middle of the civic center.)

In 1873, Victor married an Irish immigrant named Ellen Manning (records sometimes list her name as Ann). They had a daughter, Gertrude Mary Ponet, in 1874. Later, they took in and raised a boy named William.

By 1882, Mrs. Ponet's millinery shop stood at 78 Main Street, just a few doors down from Victor's shop/funeral parlor. Mrs. Ponet imported and sold French millinery, advertising her shop in the Los Angeles Herald.

In 1885, the Ponets took a two-year sabbatical, traveling in Europe (needless to say, Belgium was on the itinerary).

It isn't clear when Victor began buying land, but buy it he did. Sometime in the 1880s he purchased Fiesta Park, bordered by Pico, Hope, 12th, and Grand. The land, renamed Ponet Square, soon boasted one of LA's first apartment buildings.

If you're a firefighter or in the insurance industry, the name Ponet Square may sound familiar. The Ponet Square Hotel, built in 1906 and formerly LA's biggest apartment building, was the site of an arson fire in 1970. Nineteen people, most of them working-class immigrants, were killed in what was quickly dubbed the deadliest fire in LA's history. The tragedy resulted in the Ponet Square Ordinance, which requires all buildings pre-dating LA's 1943 fire code to comply with the code. The Ponet Square Hotel had, in fact, been condemned by fire inspectors in 1941 due to its open stairwell, which enabled the fire to quickly spread from the lobby to the upper floors. The hotel - badly damaged and too unstable to save - was torn down within the next few days, and the site has been (no surprise here) a parking lot ever since. (LA Fire has a thorough recap of the fire and its aftermath.)

Also within the Ponet Square development is a link to a better-known part of Los Angeles history. The Morrison Hotel, two blocks north of the Ponet Square Hotel, had become a transient hotel by the late 1960s. Which, of course, didn't stop The Doors from posing for an album cover in the lobby (see above). The former Morrison Hotel was abandoned in 2006 and has been empty ever since (and is a "hotspot" on Esotouric's historic preservation map). (Update: it's now slated for revitalization. Of course, the developer might very well rip out whatever historic charm is left...)

Victor lived in Sherman (Cahuenga) later on...and even then, wasn't content to rest on his laurels. He served as Belgian Vice Consul to Southern California and Arizona (the consulate was at 145 N. Spring Street in those days; it's an empty lot now). He was a founder and director of the German-American Savings Bank, which was later folded into what is now Security Pacific (he was its president from 1894 to 1897). He was also President of the Evergreen Cemetery Association and a trustee of the Chamber of Commerce. He was in the Jonathan Club, the Knights of Columbus, and the Newman Club. Oh, did I mention the Ponets took in boarders, too?

In 1906, King Leopold of Belgium bestowed upon him the title of Chevalier de L’Ordre de Leopold - knighthood - for his services to Belgium.

Victor didn't retire until rather late in life, and when he did, it was to a farm he'd purchased in the late 1800s in what is now West Hollywood.

In 1906, a road was extended through Victor's farm, stretching from Crescent Heights Boulevard to the lima bean fields that eventually became Beverly Hills. West Hollywood was still way out in the sticks at the time, and the road wasn't paved until the 1930s.

You know this road. You've probably driven on it many times without a second thought.

Give up? It's Sunset Boulevard.

Speaking of streets, there is a Ponet Drive near Griffith Park. Apparently, at least one Ponet descendant lives (or lived) in the area.

Another construction project took place in 1906: a new church, intended to serve the Roman Catholics who lived out in the relative wilderness of West Hollywood and its surrounding neighborhoods. Victor donated the land and is said to have supplied the original building. St. Victor Catholic Church remains active to this day.

Victor passed away in 1914 at age 78. Two years later, Ellen passed away.

William Ponet became a Roman Catholic priest and served at St. Vincent's Church in Los Angeles.

Gertrude Ponet married a Midwestern transplant named Francis Stanton Montgomery. They had four sons. The oldest, born in 1908, was named Victor Ponet Montgomery after his grandfather.

The Montgomery family developed Sunset Plaza in the 1920s (one of my resources says the land was inherited from Victor). To the best of my knowledge, they still own it to this day.

*LA's French community was less homogeneous than one might expect. While the majority of French immigrants were from France's Basque regions, others hailed from different parts of France, some were from Quebec, a few came from Louisiana, and some hailed from Belgium, Switzerland, and the often-disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine (but were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally French).

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blended: The Larronde/Etchemendy Family

237 North Hope Street
(can you believe this was torn down for a DWP building?!)

Some people believe that single parents and stepfamilies are a modern phenomenon. That simply isn't true. For most of human history, it was far more common for children to lose a parent to illness, accidents, war, etc. than it is today.

Were there blended families in Frenchtown? Of course. Jean-Louis Sainsevain is known to have married at least twice and had two stepchildren in addition to his two sons from his first marriage.

But we've covered the Sainsevain brothers. Today we're going to meet a different blended family.

Our story begins in the Basses-Pyrénées in southwestern France. Pierre Larronde was born there in 1826; Jean Etchemendy was born there in 1830. Although the two men did not know each other early in life, they both lived in South America, mined in the California gold rush, and moved to Los Angeles to raise sheep.

Juana Egurrola was born in Marquina, Spain, in 1835, emigrating to California with her family as a child. In 1865, she married Jean Etchemendy.

Jean owned the Rancho San Pedro, raising sheep there until the day he died (the rancho's museum is said to still have samples of wool from his sheep). He was quite successful at it, and got into real estate.

Jean and Juana had three daughters - Mariana, Madeline, and Carolina. Sadly, Jean died in 1872. He was only 41.

It wasn't long before Juana caught the eye of Pierre Larronde.

Like Jean Etchemendy, Pierre Larronde had made a good amount of money mining gold in Northern California before coming to Los Angeles to raise sheep (there is some evidence that, like Jean, he may also have raised sheep at Rancho San Pedro). He married Juana in 1874.

Juana and Pierre had three more children together - Pedro Domingo, John, and Antoinette.

When the land boom hit in the 1880s, Pierre liquidated his sheep empire to invest in real estate. He had so many business dealings that by 1892, the city directory simply listed his occupation as "capitalist".

By 1887, Pierre had built the Larronde Block, a two-story brick building with one of the rarest things in Los Angeles - a basement! Stores, offices, and a tailor shop could be found on the ground floor, with apartments upstairs.

The Larronde block stood on the northwest corner of Spring and First Streets. Le Guide reported that the land was still owned by the Larronde/Etchemendy family. However, not too long after Le Guide was published in 1932, the Larronde Block was demolished to make room for the Los Angeles Times building.

In 1888, construction began on a large and beautiful home for all eight members of the Larronde/Etchemendy family. The house, located at 237 N. Hope Street, was three stories high and, appropriately for Bunker Hill, in the Queen Anne Revival style.

Pierre lived to be 70 years old, passing away in 1896. Juana died in 1920 at the age of 84.

The six Larronde/Etchemendy children stayed in the house on Hope Street, with only two of them choosing to move away.

Pedro Domingo Larronde became one of the principals of the Franco American Baking Company. Antoinette Larronde got married and had a family of her own.

Of the remaining siblings, John Larronde served the city as president of the Fire Commission. He died in 1954, as did Madeline Etchemendy. Mariana and Carolina Etchemendy lived into the 1960s, and only moved out of the house when the demolition of Bunker Hill forced them to do so.

The Larronde/Etchemendy family lived at 237 N. Hope for nearly 80 years. The house was demolished in 1957. Today, the Department of Water and Power takes up the entire block.

Jean Etchemendy, Pierre Larronde, and Juana Larronde are all buried at Calvary Cemetery - beneath one large pedestal topped by an angel statue. I can only presume that Juana wanted to be buried with both of the men she loved when she died.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Welcome to the French Museum of Los Angeles/Bienvenue à la Musée des Français à Los Angeles

Today is my birthday.

What I would like to do is go to a museum.

Specifically, a museum that tells Frenchtown's countless stories.

Imagine, if you will, a surviving 19th century building converted into a museum (in a way that preserves its original bones as much as possible, of course).

Imagine a giant (fiberglass, of course) bottle of Sainsevain Brothers Wine outside, beckoning visitors and reminding attentive passersby that French-owned vineyards once dotted downtown Los Angeles.

Perhaps there is even a rear courtyard where visitors can see wine grapes growing - Mission, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc (i.e. the varieties Jean-Louis Vignes grew at El Aliso long before Union Station was built on the site). Replicas of 19th-century winemaking equipment are also on display (we mustn't expose authentic artifacts to the elements!).

Inside, an entire gallery traces California's wine industry from Louis Bauchet and Jean-Louis Vignes through the present day. Bottles, winemaking equipment, and personal effects, carefully preserved behind glass, bear the names Sainsevain, Vache, Mesnager, and Nadeau (among others). Perhaps, if we are really lucky, Pierre Sainsevain's steam-powered stemmer crusher will be on view.

A second gallery tells the overall story of the French in Los Angeles.

Bricks from the zanja madre, surviving pieces of hollow log pipe, and an original iron pipe speak to the struggle for safe, reliable water in Los Angeles and to the forgotten Frenchmen who gave it their all - Jean-Louis Sainsevain, Damien Marchessault, Prudent Beaudry, and Solomon Lazard. Surviving pictures of Sainsevain's water wheel and the founding members of the Los Angeles City Water Company bring to life the difficulties of hydrating a parched city.

Pharmaceutical ads and medicinal packaging speak to LA's early French pharmacists - Chevalier, Viole & Lopizich, and the Brunswig family. Photos and very old medical equipment represent Dr. Nadeau (no relation to Remi), Dr. Pigne-Dupuytren, and the French Hospital.

A wall of old maps, perhaps with tiny LED lights representing the path of the Temple Street Cable Railway, show Prudent Beaudry's massive impact as a developer.

Paul de Longpré's pretty flowers adorn a wall - and perhaps someday the Seaver Center will loan out a few of Henri Penelon's paintings.

A case of antique watches, jewelry, and hardware, alongside modern-day aerospace materials, testifies to the importance of Charles Ducommun, the talented Franco-Swiss watchmaker who founded California's oldest corporation.

The evolution of law and order in Los Angeles might be seen in a case displaying photos of the Lachenais lynching, Judge Julius Brousseau's gavel, and perhaps the badge of Eugene Biscailuz, former LA County Sheriff and founder of the California Highway Patrol.

Perhaps one of Victor Ponet's cabinets has survived. Perhaps it displays milk bottles from the Sentous, Alpine, and Pellisier dairies. (Heck, I'd be happy if one of Ponet's coffins survived and was in decent enough condition for display.) And perhaps a copy of the Doors' album "Morrison Hotel" - built on Ponet's land - hangs on the wall, linking long-forgotten LA with still-in-living-memory LA.

A sizable wall case shows glassware, dinnerware, menus, matchbooks, and other items from French-owned restaurants. I just might be thrilled to death to point out the glasses from Café de Paris that are on permanent loan from my personal collection*. But we all know Philippe Mathieu, creator of the French Dip, is going to be the star here (even if he did move back to France when he retired).

One unique display stacks fruit crates high, with labels reading Model, Basque, Daily, Popular, and Golden Ram. Next to the stack? If we are very lucky, a surviving jug from Bastanchury Water - since all of those brands were based on the Bastanchury family's enormous orange grove in Fullerton.

Surviving pictures and the odd schoolbook speak to LA's French educators, ranging from Father Lestrade and his boys' boarding school to Madame Henriot and her Francophone private school to the modern-day Lycée Français. Perhaps there is even a clipping from one of the olive trees used to create olive oil in a contest at Caltech during Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau's tenure.

World War One is recalled, perhaps, by a rare surviving plaster statuette of Pedretti's Doughboy (sold to raise funds for the statue), Lucien Brunswig's dispatches from war-torn France, Georges Le Mesnager's correspondence with General Pershing, and artifacts from the many French war-relief organizations headquartered in LA (and, probably, chaired by Brunswig). Perhaps there is even something that belonged to Dr. Kate Brousseau, who used her brilliant bilingual mind and Ph.D in psychology to rehabilitate traumatized soldiers.

Perhaps there are still surviving items from the City of Paris - LA's biggest and best early department store. Perhaps they could be artfully arranged into a life-size diorama of a fashionable, well-to-do lady's boudoir, circa 1880.

Maybe, just maybe, an entire wall could be "papered" with blown-up images of the city's forgotten Francophone newspapers - Le Progres, L'Union, L'Union Nouvelle. (There was reportedly a fourth paper early on, called the Republican, but I will be very surprised if there are ANY surviving copies.) One of those newspapers was still being published in the 1960s. Just saying...

Remi Nadeau, quite possibly the greatest Angeleno who has been forgotten by the remote frontier town he helped to turn into a world-class city, really deserves his own gallery (if not his own museum). But even one case of artifacts would be a damn good start.

In the middle of it all, I for one would love to see a scale model of early downtown LA - which, with a little magic from projectors, can layer "LA now" over "LA then" when a switch is flipped.

Perhaps a third space - a small theater - showcases French Angelenos in film. Any surviving scraps of film shot at Blondeau's Tavern - Hollywood's first film studio - segue into the stunts of aviatrix Andrée Peyre, cut to Claudette Colbert, and perhaps finish up with Lilyan Chauvin (who went on to teach at USC). It would be a no-brainer to use the space for special screenings, too.

I have so many more people, places, and accomplishments in my list of future blog posts that I won't even try to list them all here.

But here's the problem...

I can't go to this museum.

It doesn't exist outside of my own head.

Chinese Americans make up 1.8% of LA's population (county-wide, the number rises to 4%). They have their own museum AND the Chinatown Historical Society (both of which, by the way, are based in buildings constructed by French immigrants).

Mexican Americans make up 32% of LA's population. They have their own museum.

Japanese Americans make up 0.9% of LA's population and have largely spread to the suburbs (hello, Torrance!). They have their own museum.

African Americans make up 9.6% of LA's population. They have their own museum.

Los Angeles' itty-bitty Little Italy (try to say THAT three times fast) grew out of Frenchtown (two of the French Benevolent Society's founding members were Italian), vanished during the war, and is now part of Chinatown. They have their own museum.

Should these ethnic groups all have their own museums? Of course they should. They are all a part of LA history and they all have their own stories to tell modern-day Angelenos (and whoever else is listening).

For a good chunk of Los Angeles' history, the city was 20% French. Until sometime around the turn of the 20th century, only Californios outnumbered them.

I have written about the founders of California's wine industry, humble hoteliers (wait until I get to the fancier ones), a pharmacist who threw himself into supporting World War One, a renegade general, entire families of ranchers, LA's first struggling artist, and the city's first priests.

I have barely scratched the surface. There are HUNDREDS of stories left to tell.

And one doozy of a question to ask:

Why doesn't Los Angeles have a French-American Museum?

I've previously addressed the fact that the Pico House hosted a temporary exhibit on French Angelenos in late 2007/early 2008. But it lasted less than six weeks, ran during the busy holiday season (not a time when most people want to go to museums), and has, of course, since been forgotten (go on, ask anyone who isn't French if they remember it...I'll wait).

The forgotten French community in Los Angeles deserves to be remembered just as much as every other ethnic group that has ever made a home for itself in LA. We deserve our own museum - a permanent one.

Alas, I don't have the funds or the connections to do this myself.

Can anyone spare several million dollars (damn LA real estate) and a resourceful curatorial staff?

*I do indeed own glassware from the shuttered French-owned Café de Paris in Hollywood (an extremely lucky flea-market find). And if a French-American museum ever does open its doors in Los Angeles, I'll happily - enthusiastically, even - loan out some of those glasses. I'll lead tours, give lectures, you name it. I want our stories told.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Frenchmen of the Pico House


Every Los Angeles local knows who Pio Pico was.

Most are aware of the Pico House Hotel, which (miraculously) has survived to the present day.

Virtually nobody is aware that multiple Frenchmen plied various trades at the Pico House.

Construction on the Pico House began in 1869 and finished in 1870. By then, Pio Pico had led quite a life - last Mexican governor of Alta California, rancher, and entrepreneur. The Pico House, built opposite the Plaza, was by far the most lavish hotel in Los Angeles at the time (Remi Nadeau would later build a hotel that would make the Pico House look like a farmhouse, but that's a story for a future entry).

Southern California's very first drugstore, owned by one A. Chevalier, initially stood in a building across the street (probably the Signoret building; at least one surviving photo suggests a pharmacy onsite), and was later moved to the ground floor of the Pico House. (Why not? Travelers get sick and injured too.)

Most good-sized hotels have at least one restaurant, and the Pico House was no exception. In a clear sign of the times (remember, Los Angeles was about 20% French by the 1860s), the restaurant featured French food, French-language menus, and a maitre d' known as "French Charlie" Laugier.

Gov. Pico was having financial problems by the late 1870s, and lost the hotel to the San Francisco Savings and Loan Company.  The hotel changed hands a few more times.

By the 1890s, Pico House had been renamed the National Hotel and was owned by Pascale Ballade.

When the French Republic celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1892, French Angelenos paraded from Aliso Street to the Plaza. But the celebration really went into high gear at the Pico House/National Hotel, which hosted an extravagant banquet and ball.

Owner Pascal Ballade, born in France in 1838, had arrived in Los Angeles in 1860. He founded the Hotel des Pyrénées, Los Angeles' largest boarding house. The Hotel stood at 300-302 Aliso Street, held up to 1,000 guests at a time, and catered to newly-arrived French Basques - so much so, in fact, that it held weekly jeu de paume (handball) competitions attracting players from all over the USA.

Ballade also owned a combination grocery/liquor store (in the 1880s, he lived above the shop). Perhaps not surprisingly, he also owned two saloons (one at 700 Olive Street and another at 742 S. Main). On top of those responsibilities, he was a City Councilman, belonged to the Golden Rule Lodge and La Fraternité (a Knights of Pythias chapter which seems to have been composed entirely of French Angelenos), and had a sheep ranch in San Juan Capistrano.

Ballade and his wife Marie (who was also from France) had three children - John (sometimes recorded as "Juan"), Marie, and Antoinette. The Ballades and their daughter Antoinette are buried at Calvary Cemetery (Marie married into the Royére family and is buried in their plot at Angelus Rosedale; I have been unable to locate a gravesite for John).

The 1900 census indicates that the Ballade family had boarders - one of whom was Edward Naud Jr. He was of French parentage, and you'll read more about him later.

It isn't clear when the Ballades sold the Pico House, but Pascal did pass away in 1904, not too long after the business district moved further away, leading to the neighborhood's decline. I am sure the Ballade family would have sold it with no regrets at that point. The State of California has owned the Pico House since 1953.

It is interesting to note that Felix Signoret's business block stood opposite Pico House. Like Ballade, Signoret took in boarders and owned a saloon, held down a regular job as well, and was a City Councilman. Signoret was also the leader of the lynch mob that finally took down Michel Lachenais in 1870...and the Pico House is VERY close to the site of the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

The Pico House itself hosted a temporary exhibition on Los Angeles' lost French community from December 3, 2007 to January 13, 2008. Pioneers and Entrepreneurs: French Immigrants in the Making of L.A. 1827-1927 was presented by the nonprofit foundation FLAX (France Los Angeles eXchange), with the support of the French Consulate. Although the exhibition lasted less than six weeks, an accompanying book was published (I did find one factual error, but the book is nonetheless an excellent primer on LA's forgotten French colony). What are you waiting for? Go read it!